I won’t lie to you, friends — sometimes, and really just sometimes, I still question what we’re doing here. I sometimes still wonder — if we stay off the well-beaten paths of modern parenting, if we tenderly nurture our kids, without punishing them every time we turn around, and without praising every move that they make, and without focusing on making them tow the party line or thoughtlessly follow the other followers bleating at their sides — will they grow up knowing how to navigate in a world where so much of the experience is concerned with negotiating other people’s expectations of them? In my various social media exchanges, I regularly reshare the lovely quote from L.R. Knost: “As parents it’s not our job to toughen up our children to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.” But sometimes I still wonder — is that what we’re doing?!
Then, of course, and always, one of my girls does something like start her own anti-bullying group on Facebook, or bust out the empathy and start emotional processing with fellow kids on the playground, or sneak out and walk herself home from a sleep-over at 11:30pm through the snow on a subfreezing November night. Whenever I get close to doubting what we’re doing, I just have to look at the product. I just have to pay attention to the amazing humans growing up under our roof. I’ve got the most delicious pudding right here in front of me, and it is chock-full of proof.
It’s easy to see when they’re being kind and gentle to each other, and being understanding and empathetic to strangers they see, and being thoughtful and discerning in measuring the effect of their choices on themselves and others. It’s easy to see when they’re being nice, and cooperative, and pleasant. It takes a little more, and maybe you picked up on it already above, when their doing what’s best for them (and everyone else for that matter) punches the traditional view of what’s appropriate right in the face.
Last weekend, Echo was around the corner having a sleep-over with her bosom-buddy Salome. This was the third time that Echo has begun the evening going to bed at her friend’s house and then come home sometime in the night. The first two times, it was by design that she try out the sleep-over thing, see how it went, and then get picked up and brought home for the remainder. One of those first two times, she even went back over to Salome’s in the morning for pancakes. This time, however, she was determined to see the whole thing through. She brought her sleeping bag, her eye mask, her water bottle, a snuggly friend, a shirt of Mom’s, and a backpack of other essentials. She was staying.
Natalie and I were at home, enjoying our sudden alone time by doing pretty much exactly what we do every night — snuggling up, working on projects, and watching something online together. There’d been no family dinner, no bedtime routine, no stories read, no snuggling kids to sleep. We checked in by text a couple of times and everything was going perfectly for Echo. We were soft-eyed, relaxed, and planning to cozy up a couple more hours together before bed. The last update from Salome’s mom, Romy, was that Echo was lying still and quiet, and was so cute in her Hello Kitty eye mask.
Then at about 11:30, our back door parted slightly and Echo slipped in — and in my mind, I could see adult hands gently leaving her shoulders as they delivered her inside. She was clad in snow boots and a nightshirt, with the coat she uses hung from her head by the hood and held down with the backpack she had on as well. I was at her side and peering out of the window in the door within a single second. I looked to wave at what I assumed would be Salome’s dad, Suresh, in pajamas and down jacket exiting through the fence gate. But there was just snow and streetlight and stars out there. And Echo, warm and wide-eyed in here.
The questions flew like arrows from a castle besieged. What the hell was she doing here? How did she get home?! Where were the adults?! And even though she was in our arms, and had clearly made it — was she really safe?! I wanted to be mad. I wanted to tell her that it was wholly and totally inappropriate for her to clandestinely gather up her things, pack out, and sneak off into the frigid Montana night in a death-defying bid to get back home without adult assistance. I actually fleetingly imagined myself grabbing her shoulders and shaking her in clichéd parental desperation before grounding her for the rest of her life!
Then, I saw her. I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know by what grace I was delivered from my frightened, narrow parenting mind. But suddenly and without any skill or effort on my part, I was gifted a broader perspective just long enough to keep me from freaking out. This was not the defiant act of a witless waif with no boundaries or foresight. This wasn’t even the absurd acting out of a young mind tortured by overwhelming emotion. This was the measured and expertly executed choice of a human who knows what feels best to her and values herself enough to go and get it. This was the crowning achievement of a 7-year-old who knows that she matters.
I mean, the girl was determined to stick out the whole night at the sleep-over. She had a great time the entire evening, and then brushed teeth and went to bed with Salome and her sister Olive. She laid perfectly quiet in the still, warm room for two long hours trying to fall asleep. She recognized, after that interval, that she wasn’t going to be able to sleep because she was so emotionally uncomfortable. She thought about going to Romy and Suresh but didn’t want to wake them (and we hadn’t told her that she could…). She made a final decision, and then got up out of the bed. She gathered up all of her belongings from various corners of the room (forgetting only the water bottle) and packed them back into the pack she’d brought from home. She crept out of the bedroom, paused by the parents’ room and saw that they were, in fact asleep, and went downstairs. She tripped over the dog, but went on undaunted to the nearest exit, where she donned boots, coat, and the backpack she’d been carrying thus far. She tried the door, and it was locked, so she worked at twisting the deadbolt open, and then slid out into the night, silently closing the door on her way out. She strode out of the gate, along the snowy walk to the corner where she looked several times before crossing the street. She crossed again immediately to the opposite corner and broke into a run up the boulevard out of excitement to see us again. She paused at the alley, and then raced to our gate, fought momentarily with the latch on the inside of it and burst into the yard. Only when she got to the back steps did she slow down long enough to consider the possibility that we might be mad at her for all of this, but she pushed right through it, into our toasty, buttery home.
I had whole schools of feelings continue to swim through me in the aftermath. I mean, what if she had gotten frostbite, or had gotten lost, or (because I don’t even want to say it now…) “something” worse!? What if Romy and Suresh woke up in the night and (didn’t see our phone messages before they) went to check on the kids and ours was just gone? What if basically anything else would have happened?! Was she being reckless? Was she being callus? Was she too attached to us? Was she too sheltered? Was she too ignorant of the dangers?
We put her to bed that night and stayed up just a little longer discussing it. Then after we helped her get back over to Salome’s for cartoons and waffles the next morning, Echo came home again and we talked with her some more. Natalie chatted briefly with Romy about it. And we each continued to mull it over, both privately and between the two of us. Now, finally, most of the misgivings have subsided. It scared the hell out of me because so much could have gone so terribly wrong. But nothing did. In fact, everything went just right.
Natalie and I have even found ourselves quietly applauding Echo’s audaciously brave self-love. We were both in similar discomfort at sleep-overs when we were kids. We both longed for it to be over, even during the fun parts. We both had times when we would certainly have preferred to run home. But we didn’t. We were never that brave. We were never that much in charge of ourselves. We were never so empowered or dedicated to taking good care of ourselves. We didn’t even know that we mattered enough to think we could choose to do anything even remotely similar. We just ducked under the covers, secretly wept ourselves to sleep, or didn’t sleep at all, mired as we were in our lonely incapacity.
Echo said that one of the things that allowed her to make her choice to come home that night was that she trusted us not to get mad at her. (!) She knew that we’d support her doing what was right for her, even though it wasn’t perhaps the most socially-supported choice. She knows that she matters enough that doing what is right for herself is going to be best for everyone. She is becoming a self-fulfilling human. She says she’s able to lean into that because she trusts us, but I think it’s more likely because we trust her.
It takes a lot to resist totally freaking out when your 7-year-old comes stumbling in from the cold, dark night alone at 11:30pm. At the very least, it makes you question what you’re doing as a parent. It makes you wonder if you’ve gone too far toward trusting, toward empowering, toward communicating significance and belonging; too far toward teaching them that their needs matter; too far toward understanding that their feelings are real and palpable and worthy of attention; too far toward teaching self-love; too far toward hope. And at the same time, in exactly the same moment, it reminds you that everything matters; that everything is working out perfectly; that everything we’re doing to validate and nurture our children and their sense of self is adding up in all of our favors.
I know there’s probably a few more questions here than answers. I know this may not be the tidy explanation of human development, or the tender musing on living with littles that you’ve become used to from me. I’m not pretending that I’m 100% sure what all of this means. I can’t even say that I’m 100% in support of Echo’s choice. And in truth, we did absolutely direct her to some other options short of wandering off alone into the wild Montana November midnight; though, we also didn’t punish her, we didn’t second guess her, and we didn’t tell her she was wrong to do what she had. Because, although I hope she never has to do that again, I’m glad that she’s powerful and self-loving enough to if it comes to it. And although I can’t be sure if everything we’re doing in raising them is absolutely best, I do know that (whether it’s because they can trust us, or because we trust them, or more likely, both) seeing that we can rely on these girls to trust themselves is the surest sign that we’re on the right track.
Keep watching and considering and learning and loving, my dears. Keep trusting, being trustworthy, and having faith. The path is long, the way is dark, but we’re getting there…